Raul Rivera grew up in the South Bronx in the 60s and 70s at the height of “The Bronx is Burning” moment. From a very young age he got into the vices the neighborhood had to offer — drugs, violence, crime. He spent years of his life in and out of jail — until he got connected with Graffiti, a Hope for New York affiliate in Alphabet City, at the age of 50.
Below, Raul shares his story of how God used people at Graffiti to show him His faithfulness and love — and to completely transform his life. Raul is now a deacon at Graffiti and works at the after-school program of Graffiti 3 in Brownsville, Brooklyn.
I was born and raised in the Soundview section of the South Bronx. I came from a single parent home, and I’m the oldest male of the six of us kids. Where I grew up was a very hardcore drug, prostitution, and crime riddled neighborhood. And I indulged in that life growing up.
We lived on the first floor of the projects, so I could jump out of the window and run away from home or sneak out. I started smoking marijuana and drinking when I was 11. I indulged in criminal activity, like stealing from my mother. By 17, I was injecting heroin.That’s when my whole world started crumbling down.
I started committing armed robberies. And it was just a crazy life. I just didn’t know any other life but that. I believed my life was just existing here on this planet and when I die, I just die. I didn’t believe in God. I spent a lot of years in and out of prison, selling drugs, robbing people.
Then in 2008, I was facing seven years in prison for an assault charge, but the judge mandated me to a residential treatment facility instead. So I went to this program, and they assigned me to a GED class at Graffiti, which was three blocks away. When I got in front of the building, I thought they had to be out of their mind that they sent me to a church. I don’t believe in God. I don’t walk into churches. But my vocational counselor told me my rules didn’t apply anymore.
So I went to the GED program, and I met a man named Kareem. At the time, I didn’t know he was the co-pastor. He was so happy, always smiling. I didn’t think anybody could be that happy in life. One day we were talking and out of nowhere I asked him if I could come to church here. He said, “We would love to have you.” When I walked away, the first thing I thought was “What just happened here?” Then I thought about the word “We.” It turned on a light for me. It sounded like this church was a family.
That Sunday, I ended up in the front row. I didn’t know what I was doing there. I went home that night and asked God what he wanted. What was all this about? That was when I realized God talks through the Holy Spirit. He said to me, “I was very patient with you, now it’s my turn.” I said, “Okay, how are we going to do this?” And He said to me, “You’re not going to do anything. I’m going to do this. Just follow my lead.” I got to the understanding that day that God knows exactly where He needs to put you — and that the next step was to give my life to Him. But I didn’t think I could commit to that. I thought I would mess up.
I kept coming to church for a few months and one day Pastor Taylor invited me to a men’s group. I went to sit in and see what they did. That night I was talking to the Lord, and I said, “I’ve had both feet over here in a life of drugs and crime, in and out of prison, not being a responsible dad. And He said, “I’ll take care of that. Don’t worry about it.” That’s when I told Him, “I surrender.” I felt this sense of trust in the Lord. I knew I was never going to get it right unless I gave it all to God. Without Him, I had nothing.
So, in April of 2010, I met with Pastor Taylor and told him I had made a commitment for 35 years of my life with Satan and all I got was misery, chaos, turmoil. I wanted to give myself to the Lord right now, right in the room in front of Him. And that’s what I did. I don’t think I ever cried so much. I felt so full of compassion and truth. It was beyond understanding.
Now, I leave everything up to God. I know I have footwork to do as His child, but I give every situation to Him. I work at Graffiti 3 in Brownsville, Brooklyn, doing an after-school program with the kids. I’m also a deacon at Graffiti. That was beyond my wildest imagination. Through Graffiti, I serve the community Wednesday night meals and go out with FLIP, which stands for Free Lunch in the Park, to hand sandwiches to the homeless. But nothing I do and nothing I give comes from me. It comes from God. I’m just an instrument that He uses.
Learn more about Hope for New York and how you can get involved loving and serving your neighbors in need through our 50 non-profit affiliate partners at hfny.org/volunteer.